At this point, it’s hard for me to see Criterion as anything other than an institution. I have to actively remind myself that it’s just a privately-owned movie distribution company.
But they have proven their superior taste over the course of decades, and with the Criterion Channel, their very own streaming service, they’re trying to expand their reach more than ever before.
My taste in movies, just in general, has been heavily, heavily influenced by Criterion, and I can even thank them for introducing me to some of my all-time favorite movies and filmmakers.
But at the same time, their reach still feels quite limited, and I rarely see any discussion about Criterion. Instead, people tend to just talk about the movies, which is fair enough.
So I would like to discuss some of the good things and some of the bad things about the Criterion Collection.
Just a note: none of the bad things are really that bad; most of them relate to their online presence and their marketing efforts.
Ok, let’s go.
The best thing about the Criterion Collection is that it exists.
I very honestly feel that what they’re doing is important. They are legitimately helping to preserve important movies from all around the world and from different eras of filmmaking. They really are, and I think that’s wonderful.
There’s a good number of movies that probably would have just faded away had Criterion not shown interest in preserving them.
The next good thing is their selection. Criterion knows how to pick ‘em. The collection, as a whole, is a survey of excellent filmmaking.
They’ve also done a pretty good job of representing different nationalities, ethnic groups, gender identities, etc.
In fact, I can’t really think of any other distributor that promotes such a wide range of filmmakers.
And regardless of the filmmakers behind the movies, the Criterion Collection selection includes some of the best movies of the last 100 years, period.
It’s a crash course on arthouse film, complete with impressive supplementary materials where smart people talk about how the movies were made and why they matter.
The Criterion Channel
The Criterion Channel is Criterion’s video streaming service, and for what it’s worth, I think it’s pretty good.
The video quality is solid, the selection is decent at any given time, and you get to watch some of the bonus features, too.
But the Criterion Channel also made it onto the bad things list, so we’ll come back to it soon enough.
The Cover Art
Wow, wowow. The updated cover art for almost every Criterion release is fantastic.
Criterion is one of the only contemporary media brands that really takes advantage of just the huge number of talented illustrators and visual artists working today.
In fact, Criterion has established such a reputation for bold cover art that folks online frequently do mock-ups of movies they hope will get added to the collection.
Even if I don’t especially love every single Criterion cover, I expect that a lot of other people would.
These covers are streets ahead of even contemporary Hollywood posters. They’re about a million times more interesting and creative, and people have taken notice.
But the biggest good thing about Criterion, for me, is that it has given movie nerds a kind of loose sense of community.
It’s kind of like being a member of a secret club, emphasis on ‘secret,’ thanks to that limited scope. (We’ll get to that later.)
It’s the same reason I used to go to an actual video store here in LA: rather than going back for the movies themselves, it’s nice to feel like everyone else there “gets it.” That sense of community is generally pretty hard to find, and I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that the arthouse, movie fandom crowd is growing, so when you see a Criterion Bluray on someone’s shelf, you know right away that you’ll be able to hold a conversation with them. There’s immediately some common ground.
Now, movie geekdom definitely has its fair share of snobs and gatekeepers, but whenever I talk to Criterion fans in-person, or when I peruse the Criterion reddit, everyone seems pretty nice. It’s generally pretty welcoming, as far as I’ve seen.
And I think that’s a huge plus for Criterion as a brand, this idea that it’s not just a movie distributor that relies on physical media, but a community of cinephiles from all over the world.
Now for the bad stuff that really isn’t all that bad. But I do think it’s still important to mention.
The Criterion Channel (Again)
So it’s not that the service is bad, or that I don’t like their approach, but I’m worried that Criterion, in its current state, isn’t going to be able to sustain its own streaming service, despite a loyal fanbase.
For those who don’t already know, this isn’t Criterion’s first attempt at streaming. Previously, portions of the Collection were available on Hulu, then they migrated to Filmstruck, which came from Turner Classic Movies.
And the Criterion Channel itself has only been around since April, 2019.
I think a lot of media companies are learning that it’s really difficult to sustain their own streaming services.
NBC tried See-So. CBS All Access is … I don’t suspect that it’s doing all that great. Just a hunch.
Disney is the only company to pull it off successfully, but of course they own an obscene amount of content and other media brands. And even still, browsing through the offerings feels limited.
So is Criterion big enough to keep its own streaming service running, especially when so many viewers have gotten used to having access to a huge range of content through a single subscription?
Let’s just say I’ve got my fingers crossed.
And as far as the offerings go, I feel like stuff gets pulled really quickly. Maybe it’s just me.
Some of these movies are really long, and if you don’t finish one all at once, there’s a risk it won’t be there the next month.
I get that all streaming services do this, but when I’m paying specifically to watch Criterion movies, it can be a bit difficult to put up with.
Also, maybe I’m crazy, but it seems like the streaming branch of Criterion kind of contradicts the sale of physical copies.
I mean, other streaming services don’t have to worry about this as much. Disney in particular has put almost all their big properties on Disney+.
But with Criterion, before their streaming deal, the only way to watch some of these movies was to buy a physical copy.
Now, if someone streams a movie, there’s a pretty big chance they won’t feel the need to also purchase a physical DVD or Bluray.
I’m sure this has something to do with how quickly they pull movies from the service sometimes, but it still feels like these two things don’t mesh.
I still like having the Criterion Channel, and it’s a great option for people who are new to arthouse stuff and the Collection, but it almost feels like just a taste to get you started, an attempt to get you wanting the physical copies, even though the physical copies have gotta cost a lot to produce, so isn’t digital preferred?
I don’t know. Maybe a smart business person can tell me why this is actually a great idea, but to me, it seems very fragile.
Their Online Presence and Marketing Reach
Ok, so this is the big one.
Again, it’s not that I think Criterion’s online presence and marketing is bad, but I do think it could be improved a whole lot.
So Criterion’s marketing is limited. That makes sense. It’s a relatively small company, and depending on how much they’re bringing in by selling niche arthouse films, they might not have a ton of money to throw at traditional advertising efforts like print ads or commercials.
But those avenues aren’t nearly as important as they used to be.
Take a look around! We’re in the internet! This is exactly the place where smaller brands can thrive while spending not too much on marketing.
I’m not saying that I enjoy social media marketing and sponsored content, but these are viable options for small companies, as well as grassroots options like healthy fan forums and product reviews.
(By the way, Criterion, if you want me to do a full review of a specific release, send it on over. My reach is … good. Just pay me 5 bucks and we’ll call it square.)
Could Criterion have a killer online presence? Yeah, I think so. And the ace up their sleeve is that community aspect we talked about earlier. ‘
Making customers feel like they belong to a community is an extremely powerful marketing tool, and it can create a long-lasting sense of loyalty.
I think it’s very safe to say that most people who go out of their way to watch arthouse movies also want to talk about those movies.
Well, not everyone has buddies who share their taste in movies. Heck, that’s part of why I make these videos: so I don’t always have to bother real-life friends with thoughts about movies they might not care about.
So I think Criterion could create something special by amplifying that idea: if you watch Criterion stuff, you have some common ground with everyone else who watches it.
But at the same time, the community angle can get tricky, because if that community feels too insular, then potential customers are going to have a hard time approaching it.
I don’t know enough about marketing to think up a whole campaign for free, but I’d really like to see some discussions about Criterion, facilitated by Criterion.
I know they already do those sit-down interviews with celebrities about their favorites, and the Criterion Closet series is a fun time, if a bit low-rent.
But what I’m picturing is closer to the Hollywood Reporter roundtable interviews they do in front of the Oscars.
Whether or not those interviews are actually casual, freewheelin’ discussions (they’re not), they still feel like they are, and that’s such a great hook. They still have the flashy celebrity appeal, but if Criterion did something similar, it wouldn’t have to be celebrities or even filmmakers. It could be, and that would be fun, but it could also be just about anyone.
Maybe invite some prominent critics to sit down and chat about movies. Lots of your fans want to feel like they’re part of this sophisticated circle that values art and the craft of filmmaking, and these videos, which would be released for free, would let them feel that. And in the process, it would help the brand, as a whole, feel more inviting. Look, there’s people laughing in the thumbnails. Seems like they’re having a good time.
Arthouse movies aren’t snobby and dry. They make you feel and think and grow. If you communicate that to the general public, you might end up with a pretty fat customer base.
Alright, I’m done now. This whole thing was all about discussion, so feel free to talk. Tell me things about the Criterion Collection and how you found it and whether it helped you find friends with similar tastes.
I’m sleepy. I spent 7 hours today trying to upload a video about Illumination Entertainment without getting a copyright claim, so I’m just gonna go now.
And drink more coffee. It’s fun.